Negligence Per Se

Ordinarily, a jury determines whether a defendant was negligent in a personal injury action. However, in some cases, a court may determine that a defendant was "negligent per se." If a court determines that a defendant is guilty of negligence per se, then the defendant's negligence is conclusively established and the plaintiff is not required to offer further evidence of the defendant's negligence. Most negligence per se cases involve an unexcused violation of a law. For example, a plaintiff is involved in an automobile accident with a defendant. The plaintiff files a personal injury action against the defendant. It is undisputed that the defendant was driving at 85 miles per hour at the time of the accident. According to state law, a person may not drive in excess of 65 miles per hour. A judge may determine that the defendant is guilty of negligence per se because he was violating the speed limit law at the time of the accident. If so, the defendant's negligence will be conclusively established.

In order for the doctrine of negligence per se to apply:

(1) the law must have been designed to prevent the kind of harm for which the plaintiff seeks to recover; and

(2) the plaintiff must be within the class of persons for whose protection the law was adopted.

In the above example, the speed limit law was designed to prevent automobile accidents, and the plaintiff is seeking to recover for injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Therefore, the law at issue was designed to prevent the kind of harm for which the plaintiff seeks to recover.

If the law at issue has nothing to do with the plaintiff's injuries, then the doctrine of negligence per se will not apply. For example, the defendant was not violating the speed limit law at the time of the accident, but his car violated an environmental emission law. The defendant's violation of that law had nothing to do with the accident, so the doctrine of negligence per se will not apply.

In the first example above, in which the defendant was violating the speed limit law at the time of the accident, the speed limit law was adopted to protect drivers. The plaintiff was a driver at the time of the accident, so he is within the class of persons for whose protection the speed limit law was adopted.

If the defendant was violating the environmental emission law at the time of the accident, and the law was designed to protect the natural habitat of endangered condors, then the plaintiff is not within the class of persons for whose protection the law was adopted, and the doctrine of negligence per se will not apply.

A court may refuse to find a defendant negligent per se if the defendant had a valid excuse for violating the law. For example, if the defendant's brakes failed just before the accident and he was unable to slow down his car, then the court may refuse to find him negligent per se based upon his violation of the speed limit law.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.